Cult Media and Cult Fandom
“There can be no final and absolute classification of the media cult, for just as different generations within the ‘family’ may recombine qualities and attributes, then so too may new ‘media cults’ produce further recombinations of family attributes.” – Matt Hills, 2002
In spite of this suggestion that a media cult is impossible to define due to the wide range of fan practices and engagements caused by the generational mixture in many ‘families,’ Hills has also identified three typical traits of cult media texts:
- Endlessly Deferred Narrative
- Audience Participation
I am going to relate these characteristics to a text that I am a dedicated fan of and would consider to have a cult following; Harry Potter. The extensive global media coverage of this series may make this seem like an unlikely example of a cult text. After all, anyone who is willing to pay for an overpriced cinema ticket to one of the films would most likely identify as a fan, and as with a box office total of $1.3billion for the final film alone would suggest, this encompasses millions more fans than is usual for a cult.
However, does everyone who went to see the films participate in the online community Pottermore, buy wand collections the Platform 9 ¾ shop and partake in extensive debates on whether Harry and Hermione would make a better couple than her and Ron? Did they queue up outside Waterstones at midnight dressed in cloaks and hats each time a new book came out? Or have they even read the books?! In my opinion the, Harry Potter fandom, like many other cult fandoms, is split into two sets: those who enjoy the films and books and appreciate J.K Rowling’s modern work of genius, and those who truly immersed themselves the wizarding world, and continue to do so years after the final releases.
In regards to Hills’ three traits, I am going to start with Endlessly Deferred Narrative. This refers to a question which remains unanswered throughout the series, and the resolution of which often occurs as the finale. It relates to Barthes’ ‘Hermeneutic Code’ (1974) which to him can ‘constitute an enigma and lead to its solution.’ Throughout the Harry Potter series, each book adds more to the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort. From the start of The Philosopher’s Stone, the reader knows that the series will end with one of them killing the other.
Hills uses the term Hyperdiegesis to describe the creation of narrative space by a text which is ‘stimulating creative speculation’ for those in the fandom. The Wizarding World created through the Harry Potter books certainly conforms to this description. As well as the shops and theme parks based on the books, Pottermore allows J.K. Rowling to release more content to fans. The interactive nature of the site also gives the fans more opportunity to connect with one another as well as the series. Following the release of the final film, Rowling also released information about many of the main and secondary characters and their lives following the events of The Deathly Hallows. This, and much more information given by the books and author over the years have allowed fans to create Wikis of each character, displaying much more information one could gather from just the films.
Although the audience’s participation in the universe created by these books is an example of Hills’ final point, more conventional fan practices also take place, largely online. This includes fan fiction and artwork, and fan made trailers and short films.
Although this series is obviously incredibly mainstream, with a total worldwide box office of $7.7billion and 450 million books sold, I still believe that the intricately detailed magical world they create has resulted in a cult following who still appreciate reading the books for the seventh time, as well as the companion books. This suggests that amongst the masses of cinema goers who watch just because of the hype surrounding it, there is still a dedicated cult following.
Hills, M. (2002), Fan Cultures, New York & London, Routledge.